Spiritual Tattoo – John A. Rush

Spiritual Tattoo: A Cultural History of Tattooing, Piercing, Scarification, Branding and Implants
John A. Rush
Frog, Ltd., 2005
244 pages

I think I was expecting something a little more image-heavy when I picked up this book, perhaps a pictorial exploration of body modifications throughout history. While it ended up being something different, it certainly didn’t disappoint. Spiritual Tattoo is a fascinating, light-academic exploration of body modifications for spiritual and cultural purposes, both modern and historical, in cultures around the world.

While Rush admits that discussion of some of the earliest deliberate modification, including among Neanderthals, is based on a good bit of conjecture, he raises some interesting points on body modification as it relates to universal human experiences. However, further in the future he’s able to stand on more solid ground, with plenty of evidence and illustrations that draw a firm line from spiritual and other life-shaping experiences to body modification. He also intelligently discusses the modern use of body mods, particularly in postindustrial societies. Rather than painting every modern person who gets a tattoo, non-ear piercing, or other modification as an immature rebel or otherwise maladjusted individual, he instead gets to the heart of the reasons why people have these things done, even in a culture where it’s still often frowned upon.

Rush balances an academic level of research with an accessible writing style. He organizes the material creatively, and not always in a strictly linear fashion. Instead, the chapters are arranged by themes in spiritual body mods, exploring each one in depth and with care.

Overall, this is an excellent read. Some of it may be preaching to the choir when it comes to the already inked and pierced and so forth, but it’s also a valuable text when demonstrating that there’s more to body mods than rebellion–that in fact these fill in the gaps for the meaningful rites of passage that are lacking in American cultures, among others. Rather than being a recent counterculture phenomenon, Rush shows us that body modifications and spirituality have gone hand in hand in very consistent ways for millenia.

Five inked pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Long Descent – John Michael Greer

The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age
John Michael Greer
New Society Publishers, 2008
258 pages

This isn’t a strictly pagan book; however, the author is well-known in the pagan and occult communities. Additionally, the material in this book will be of interest to many pagans (and non-pagans as well!). Instead of speaking primarily from a place as a spiritual leader, in this book, Greer emphasizes his experiences as “a certified Master Conserver, organic gardener and scholar of ecological history” (as per his bio).

The Long Descent is an in-depth discussion of an often-ignored possibility for the future. Having studied the destruction of numerous civilizations throughout history, the trend that Greer observes the most is that of slow decay, often staggered, over a period of centuries–hence the title of the book. I can already see two groups of people who will be, at the very least, irritated about the holes that Greer pokes in the futuristic mythologies they tell. One will be those who believe that technology will save us all, and keeping industrial civilization going is only a matter of finding the right invention. The other will be fatalistic would-be anarchists (or Rapturists, or those waiting for the Veil to fall etc.) who anxiously await a sudden Apocalypse that will bring everything as we know it an end–either ushering in a new paradise, or a hellhole.

Either way, Greer offers a much more time-tested pattern of change. However, instead of leaving us with a pessimistic view of the future, in which we’re all victims of plagues and violence, he provides a good number of constructive solutions for making a smoother transition from industrial society to a more agrarian one. (He argues that the linear perspective of civilizations, that industrialism is automatically “higher” and “better” than agrarian ones, is unrealistic–similar to claiming that monotheism is an automatic improvement over polytheism in the grand, linear scheme of things). Surprisingly, he does not support having small, self-contained communities scattered everywhere, though he does strongly favor community interaction; the lone cabin of the survivalist is inferior to the remainders of cities, towns, etc.

He does realistically explore the down sides of this potential future; it’s not all sunshine and windmills. As health care degrades, people will succumb to illnesses and injuries that even a century ago were major threats. (One of his suggestions is to do as much DIY health care as possible.) However, overall this is a hopeful book, one that balances the very real possibility that a few generations from now there won’t be the internet, automobiles, and other luxuries we’ve come to expect–and realistic, accessible solutions for riding out the worst parts of the transition. Additionally, as he advocates acting now, rather than waiting until it’s too late, it’s a very much-needed reminder that simply thinking about the issues won’t change things.

There is an excellent chapter on spirituality and post-peak-oil that pagans should particularly take interest in. While he doesn’t promote one religion over another, he does take a good, hard look at how the reality of one’s living conditions can interplay with spiritual beliefs. He manages to blend it nicely into an otherwise primarily secular book.

Whether you’re pagan or not, whether you believe in progress, apocalypse, or some other potential future, and whether you’re a reader of Greer’s popular Archdruid Report blog, give this book a try. You may throw it against the wall, you may love it dearly, but I’m betting that you’ll have something to say about it once you’re through.

Five informed and empowered pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Drumming at the Edge of Magic – Mickey Hart

Drumming at the Edge of Magic: A Journey into the Spirit of Percussion
Mickey Hart with Jay Stevens
Marper Collins, 1990
263 pages

I have a bit of a history with this book. I first bought a copy and read it over half a decade ago, then for some inexplicable reason decided to sell it. Now that I’ve been doing more drumming, I got the urge to read it again, so I managed to track down a copy. What absolutely amazes me is how much of the book I remember, even having read it so long ago. It must have struck me deeply back then, and it’s understandable why.

This isn’t just a story about the history of the drum. Nor is it only a story about Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead. It’s a combination of those, and more. We learn about where drums came from, and we surmise about what the effects of those early percussionists must have been. We see where this instrument captivated Hart from an early age, and wonder at the amazing creations that resulted. We explore the altered states of consciousness the drum evokes, with Joseph Campbell, Alla Rakha, and the Siberian shamans as our guides. From blues and jazz to African talking drums and the bullroarers found worldwide, we are introduced to percussionists of all stripes, spots and plaids.

Between Hart and Stevens, the writing is phenomenal. Rather than following a strictly linear progression, it snakes like Hart’s Anaconda of index cards through pages upon pages of storytelling and factoids. However, it all meshes well together, rather than coming across as stilted or confused. It’s nonlinear, and it works beautifully. There’s just the right mix of personal testimonial, anecdotes, and hard facts.

Anyone who drums, dances, or otherwise is involved with music; anyone who works with altered states of consciousness, whether in shamanic practice or otherwise; anyone who wants to see what makes a rock and roll drummer tick; and anyone who wants a damned good story that’s all true, needs to read this book.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Cave Painters – Gregory Curtis

The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists
Gregory Curtis
Anchor Books, 2006
278 pages

I’ve been fascinated by cave art for years, particularly that found in southern France (such as Lascaux, Les Trois Freres, etc.). However, I hadn’t really done any in-depth study on it, other than what I got incidentally through things like Joseph Campbell’s works. The Cave Painters wasn’t just a good read–it managed to blow away a lot of my preconceived notions about paleolithic art and its spiritual/cultural implications.

Curtis offers a detailed, though fast-paced, collection of highlights of the study of paleolithic art in the past century and a half. Special attention is given to the experiences and contributions of Henri “the abbe” Breuil, as well as lesser known (to the layman, anyway) folks as Max Raphael, Annette Laming-Emperaire, Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Jean Clotte. The primary theories that these experts postulated are explored in detail, and their succession (and occasional debunking) are described. It’s an absolutely fascinating true story, and it’s apparent that Curtis did some serious research into this book.

Additionally, the art itself is explored. One thing that I really appreciated was the presentation of the idea that paleolithic peoples weren’t “primitive”, but instead were the first classic civilization. There are good arguments against the application of pure ethnography to the interpretation of cave art, in which the cultures of modern hunter-gatherer cultures are used as potential models for paleolithic cultures. The latter are treated as independent entities, and more weight is given to the actual evidence found specific to them, as opposed to speculation based on modern cultures. In all this is the art, which is shown to have much more structure and skill than is often assumed, and which reveals quite a bit about the people who created it over 20,000 years.

Also fascinating were the ideas that Curtis presents about the importance of animals to paleolithic peoples. Along with Breuil’s hunting magic, he presents such concepts as the painted animals representing different clans symbolized by their respective totems (particularly stemming from Raphael’s material), illustrations of myths being circulated at the time, and the shamanic theories put forth by David Lewis-Williams and Clottes. It definitely gives good food for thought, particularly from an animal totemists’ perspective.

Rather than being a dry, stereotypically boring academic text, The Cave Painters is written well enough that just about anyone could pick it up and give it a good read. His descriptions are compelling, and he’s remarkably talented at organizing the information in a sensible manner that conveys the importance of the people, theories and discoveries in relation to each other. However, it’s not dumbed-down in content, for all its accessible language. There’s an impressive bibliography, and Curtis did quite a bit of interviewing in the process of writing this book as well.

Where this book ties into neopaganism is that it does show that there have been solid theories for the meaning of paleolithic art since Breuil’s hunting magic ideas. The latter are still commonly found in neopagan thought, and I’ll admit a certain fondness for them. However, given that there is newer evidence that counters Breuil’s ideas, I appreciated the chance to get the basics of alternate theories laid out in a good, understandable format. I certainly want to do deeper research, but this book is a great introduction. Whether your interest is incidental, or whether the cave art is a primary topic of interest for you, I highly recommend it. It’s a relatively quick read, but packed full of information, without a wasted word in the entire thing.

Five ochre pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Primitive Song – C.M. Bowra

Primitive Song
C.M. Bowra
World Publishing Company, 1963
284 pages

Since paleolithic cultures fascinate me, I was really excited about reading this book. The author uses anecdotes and information about modern hunter-gatherer cultures ranging from Eskimos to the Andamanese to Australian aborigines as a way of attempting to trace the roots and development of song. He weaves his theory with samples of song lyrics and his analysis thereof, and explains how day-to-day life in such a culture affects the role and subject material in songs. The material is well-balanced in this regard, and I felt that the author had really done his research thoroughly.

The book is a product of its time; while it’s not as heavily Euro-centric as some older (or even contemporary) anthropological texts, there’s still a subtle bias in the writing. Additionally, Bowra makes some assumptions about hunter-gatherer cultures across the board, though he does do a good job of trying to back his theories up with examples. And the writing style is rather dry; I found myself sometimes having to reread something because it simply didn’t register.

Still, overall it’s a good resource even despite its age. Anyone interested in paleolithic cultures, particularly paleopagan religions or music, may want to check this out. Those experimenting with shamanic techniques may also find material of interest here, particularly if song is a part of their practice.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Way of the Animal Powers (Part 1) – Joseph Campbell

Historical Atlas of World Mythology Volume 1: The Way of the Animal Powers, Part 1: Primitive Hunters and Gatherers
Joseph Campbell
Harper & Row, 1988
125 pages (large coffee table book)

I was thrilled when I found this book and its companion volume (which will be reviewed at a later date). I love Joseph Campbell’s work, and particularly enjoyed his Primitive Mythology. The Way of the Animal Powers ties nicely into that volume. This book is also one of a large set of books, the Historical Atlas of World Mythology. It’s a decent-sized coffee table-style book, so don’t let the page count fool you!

The content isn’t strictly animal-related. Along with evidence of cave paintings, ritual spaces and other sacred items in the theoretical religious practices of paleolithic cultures, Campbell gives a decent amount of background on the evolution of humanity and its mythology. This is a fascinating read, with numerous threads weaving together telling the story of our ancestors’ beliefs, at least as far as we can surmise. The text is punctuated with a variety of illustrations showing specific examples; the combination is well balanced and informative.

There are those who take issue with some of Campbell’s material, particularly his attempts to globalize mythological concepts. While he does discuss archetypes and motifs, and demonstrates how different cultures (sometimes very far away from each other) may have affected each others’ myths, one should not take this as evidence of a monolithic mythology or that “All Gods are one God”. Still, if supplemented with other resources, this is an excellent read for the neopagan interested in the roots of pagan beliefs.

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Man and Beast – Reader’s Digest

Quest For the Unknown: Man and Beast
Reader’s Digest
1993
144 pages

I originally bought this book as a single copy rather than part of the entire series. As is normal for the type of book collections that Reader’s Digest, Time/Life and other magazine publishers put out on “odd” topics, this one is a nicely designed hardcover with a good mixture of text and pictures. The cover, in fact, has an awesome picture of an eagle mask on it.

But enough about the cover. Let’s go inside.

The book covers a wide variety of mystical aspects of animals, starting with a solid introduction to cryptozoology, then seguing into shapeshifter lore, and finally heading into the worship of animals and animal-based deities. Each section devotes well-researched text about its topic, punctuated with many full color illustrations, all captioned to show relevance.

It is a pretty basic book, of course, as it’s meant for the general public. Those who are already well-versed in animal-based mythology, cryptozoology and related topics will find most fo the material familiar. On the other hand, if you’re new to any of these topics, or just want a basic reference book around, this is a good choice. Additionally, if you’re a parents and want to introduce your teenaged child to animals in mythology and ritual, this would be an excellent guide as the language isn’t particularly difficult and most intelligent teens (even preteens) should have no problem with it.

Overall, a really nice coffee table book. Nothing really outstanding in the pagan/occult realm, but a good introduction.

Four and a half pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Buckskin and Buffalo – Colin F. Taylor

Buckskin and Buffalo: The Artistry of the Plains Indians
Colin F. Taylor
Salamander Books
128 pages

This is an amazingly wonderful book! It features excellent color photos, both full-size and detail, of dozens of circa 19th century Plains Indian works of leather, including shirts, leggings, robes, and other practical artwork. Beadwork, quillwork adn paint adorn these works of buffalo deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep hides, and the author selected some astoundingly lovely pieces.

The text that accompanies each one goes into the source, the components, and the cultural significance of both the objects themselves and their adornment, as well as interesting bits of information about certain details, such as a particular type of bead or feather used, or the importance of the piece in its culture. The tribal origins of each entry are also discussed, including cases where the author disagreed with the museum or collection that held the piece, and details explaining why (ie, this detail resembles this tribe instead of that tribe).

Overall, it is a really nicely done work. However, one question is left unasked. We’ve seen the pretty artwork and have learned its immense importance. Now can we please return these to the people to whom they are so very important?

Five pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Serpent Worship – anonymous

Serpent Worship
Anonymous
Tutor Press, 1980

The full title of this book is Serpent Worship, aka Ophiolatreia: The Rites and mysteries connected with the origin, rise, and development of serpent worship in various parts of the world, enriched with interesting traditions, and a full description of the celebrated serpent mounds & temples, the whole forming an exposition of one of the phases of phallic, or sex worship, aka The Rites and mysteries connected with the origin, rise, and development of serpent worship in various parts of the world, enriched with interesting traditions, and a full description of the celebrated serpent mounds & temples, the whole forming an exposition of one of the phases of phallic, or sex worship.

It’s essentially an overview of the role of snakes and related creatures around the world and throughout history. There’s a heavy emphasis on the Classical world–Greece, Egypt, and surrounding civilizations, though a number of North and South American cultures are also featured, among others.

Now, admittedly, it was written in 1889, so the writing style is quite different from today, and as it is an academic text from the time it’s not designed to be easy reading. However, there are plenty of scholarly texts from around the same time that are much easier on modern readers, IMO.

There also doesn’t seem to be a lot of organization to the text. The information is sometimes arranged in a seemingly arbitrary way, and isn’t always tied together very well.

I’d imagine that not everyone will have as much issue with this as I did. Thanks, but no thanks–there are much better books that have the exact same information in a better format. This is officially my newest Worst Book Ever.

One pawprint out of five.

Want to buy this book?

The Witches’ Sabbats – Mike Nichols

The Witches’ Sabbats
Mike Nichols
Acorn Guild Press, 2005
132 pages (not including preface, etc.)

It’s been a good long while since I’ve read anything specifically pertaining to witchcraft; most of my studies and practice in the past few years have been less about religion, and more about practical and metamorphic magic, as well as smatterings of shamanism. But I’d heard some good stuff about this book, and decided to snag a copy for myself.

If you need a really good resource on the history of the eight sabbats, this is your book! I’ve seen a number of books published in recent years on specific sabbats, but they always seme to be stuffed full of prefabricated rituals. This is a wonderfully streamlined book that will be an excellent addition to both beginning and experienced pagans’ libraries; beginners will get a good overview of the origins of the sabbats, while more experienced folk can breeze past the books of pre-written rituals and use the information in The Witches’ Sabbats as inspiration to create their own rituals from scratch.

I won’t fault the book for not having in-text citations because the earliest drafts were written nearly 40 years ago. However, the lengthy bibliography promises many wonderful book hunts, and is additionally a cornucopia of nonfluffy sources. Much of the material in the book originated from essays that may still be found online (including Mike’s own website). However, there is some unique material here. Additionally, for those of us raised on books rather than computers, and whose optical systems are thus conditioned for the visual setup of paper rather than a very long webpage, this is an ideal format. And it won’t run out of power, doesn’t need to be turned on, and is a heck of a lot easier to carry around.

Oh, and for those of you who are in the habit of skipping the foreword and preface? Don’t, especially not with this book–there are some really good pieces of information in them.

My only little bitty quibble is that it’s occasionally quite evident that the chapters were written individually. It’s mentioned a number of times that the Celts started their celebrations the sundown before the big day, something that probably only needs to be mentioned once at the beginning; and he occasionally also refers to something “in another esay” or somesuch.

Still, this is only a tiny complaint, and overall I think this is an awesome book. I can definitely see why the writings are considered classics in the realm of neopaganism, and this is a great way to not only have a convenient, easy-to-navigate, portable version of these writings, but to also give something back to the guy who did all that hard work and who often goes uncredited.

Five celebratory pawprints out of five.

Want to buy this book?

Newer entries »